Like the black-billed cuckoo, the orioles are short-timers in the Red River Valley, arriving in mid-May and disappearing by mid-August, so it may be wrong to say they are dependable summer residents. Two oriole species nest here, and soon after the young fledge, they move out of the area.

Both of these birds like open, mature woodlands of the type found in farmyards and city parks and backyards. Thus, it’s not uncommon to have the two species show up.


The orchard oriole is the choice for bird of the week, not because it is the showiest of the orioles, but because it is named for its habitat, while the Baltimore oriole is named for a human. You’re probably aware of the incipient movement to rename those species, especially if something objectionable can be found in the character whose name they bear.

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The Baltimore oriole is the brightest of the two orioles, which share habitat. The Baltimore oriole is brighter and slightly larger than the orchard oriole. Once field marks are recognized, however, they are easy to tell apart.

OK! It’s a bit more complicated than that. Both species are sexually dimorphic, which means they differ in appearance. What’s more, both species show a range of plumages from fledging to maturity. That means that at one time, several plumages could be seen in one place, including the yard at our place west of Gilby, N.D.

Baltimore orioles are flashy and familiar birds. They’re named for Lord Baltimore, the colonial proprietor of Maryland. The orchard oriole is named for its favorite habitat. A third oriole species occurs in southwestern North Dakota. This is Bullock’s oriole, a characteristic bird of the open forest along the Little Missouri River in North Dakota’s Badlands.

These two species – Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles – occasionally interbreed to produce viable hybrids. For this reason, they were once “lumped” as one species called northern oriole.

The ornithologists in charge of bird classification reversed themselves, however, when it became clear that the two orioles populations were stable and not encroaching on the other’s range.

Name changes are familiar for these two species – and could be coming once again.

Lord Baltimore’s story is familiar to many Americans. He established the colony in order to establish a place where Roman Catholics could worship freely. He was also, of course, a colonist and a slave owner.

Bullock’s oriole is named for William Bullock, who operated museums in Liverpool and London. He was involved in a notorious “exhibition” that included an African woman named Sarah Bartmaan, who came from the Kalahari Desert in what is now South Africa and Botswana.

She was presented as a “hottentot,” a dismissive and abusive term for people who call themselves Khoikhoi. The exhibit excited controversy in Britain and included a lawsuit that concluded the woman had consented to the display – a theory that was disputed at the time.

In any case, Bullock’s reputation is unlikely to survive scrutiny, and Bullock’s oriole will get a new name. That fate is not quite so clear for the Baltimore oriole, since Lord Baltimore’s name is commonplace across the country. If the decision is to replace all the names of people, of course, the Baltimore oriole would be renamed, as well.

This sort of thing has happened before, in an effort to replace names connoting nationalities. Thus, we have the house sparrow instead of the English sparrow, and the Canada goose instead of the Canadian goose. The American crow escaped because in this case, the word refers to the continents and not to any specific nationality, just as Canada is a country name rather than the name of a nationality.

Both of the local orioles display quite a lot of black on the upper sides with some white in the wings. Baltimore orioles are bright orange on the breast and belly. Orchard orioles are brick red or chestnut on the breast and belly. This makes them seem darker overall, and at close range it is the best way to distinguish the two birds.

Female orchard orioles are greenish with white wing bars. Female Baltimore orioles show orange and yellow on the breast and belly, though the color is not so brilliant as in the males. Juvenile orchard orioles show a black patch on the throat. Young male Baltimore orioles are yellow overall.

Male Bullock’s orioles are striking birds. They show much more white in the wings than Baltimore orioles. Black is limited to wings, tail and throat and doesn’t extend over the head as it does in orchard and Baltimore orioles.

These orioles are beautiful birds whatever we choose to call them.

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs